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Legalism is the Slippery Slope

The man who today forbids what God allows, tomorrow will allow what God forbids. ~ R.B. Kuiper

I want to push back. A Fundamental Baptist pastor has alerted his people to the dangers of Bob Bixby, saying that I am a New Evangelical and have opened the door to compromise and worldliness. I think a push-back is necessary because truth that is more important than my reputation is at stake. Quite honestly, the concern that this pastor and other Fundamental Baptist pastors may have about me is more flattering than realistic. The fact is that the people leaving their churches will, in the main, find my church to be utterly uninteresting to them. We take church and the gospel too seriously for most disgruntled fundamentalists.

But the psychological phenomenon of sectarian groups of attacking most vociferously the people closest to them remains a reality in the Fundamentalist world and though I could dismiss the criticisms as another illustration of how out-to-lunch some of these leaders are about the real situation they are facing, I feel compelled to write something because I know that there are many people from those churches who peek at my blog while in the secrecy of their own homes. And gospel truth matters. So, let me put it plainly:

I am more fundamentalist that many of the fundamentalists who criticize me because I actually believe that fundamentals are fundamental and non-fundamentals are not fundamental. If everything is a fundamental, nothing is a fundamental. The Gospel and the biblical outworking of that Gospel in life and practice, both individually and corporately, is a fundamental and to hold on to that Gospel without caving to the pressures of sectarianism or legalism is the tenacious commitment of anyone who really cares about the fundamentals.

You often hear the camel’s-nose-in-the-tent or slippery slope argument applied to the new electric bass in the church or the use of drums or the abandonment of a strict dress code for youth activities. We are told that these are evidences of a slide toward New Evangelicalism (ignore the fact that the term is anachronistic and irrelevant except in the Fundamental Baptist sect). The reality is that legalism is a long slippery slide into antinomianism and most leaders in Fundamental Baptist circles don’t have to look much farther than their very own children to see the proof of this. Thus, it is laughable that they should even perceive our kind of church as a threat because the reality is that most people who abandon fundamentalism are leap-frogging right over Gospel-centered churches and landing right in the thick of the most man-centered ooze of evangelicalism that they can find. They rush from Hyles to Hybles. The hard truth is that most leaders in hyper-separatistic fundamentalism should be filled with joy if their child would come to a church like ours. And some of them would privately rejoice even though they would faithfully denounce our supposed “new evangelicalism” in their ministries.

Having been relentlessly enculturated by a flippant treatment of the Scriptures and an unbiblical understanding of the nature of man many fundamentalists either stay in their churches where they can preen in holier-than-thou clubs without actually being a disciple or, not agreeing with the cultural taboos of the club, escape to another place with fewer if any cultural taboos to bask in another man-centered environment that will feed their self-righteous flesh while studiously avoiding any real Gospel demands. They mistake true discipleship as legalism.

This is because most fundamentalists have been nurtured to think that the legalism that they adapted to was discipleship. Consequently, when they see discipleship in a Gospel-practicing church — real discipleship —  they mistake it for legalism. That is why most fundamentalists who leave the far right will go to the far left overnight. They may pass our congregations on their way, but it is only to fuel up for their real destination, a haven where their self-righteousness can still be fostered minus the pesky and silly rules of right-wing cultural fundamentalism.  Minus discipleship.

What is Legalism?

The working definition of legalism is “anyone who is more strict than me.” No one thinks he is a legalist. We all look down our noses at people who get their underwear in a wad about something we find completely acceptable. Thus, the term is really difficult to use because people to my right will dismiss what I have to say because they are assuming that I’m looking down my nose at them for being more conservative than I am on various issues. However, I would like to assert that I struggle with legalism everyday and appeal for the sake of this article that we understand legalism with the following basic points in mind:

1. Legalism is righteousness or morality outside of Christ. It is anything I do that is good and upright that is not Christ doing it in me.

To effectively communicate the Gospel cross-culturally a preacher must identify the righteousness of the people, not their sins. It is our righteousness, not our sins, that is as filthy rags before God. Our righteousness is our sin. Before a person is saved he is completely in the flesh and every good thing he does is an abomination to God. “Even the plowing of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” When the person repents of his righteousness and submits to the righteousness of Christ he is a new creature but he still has his old nature that likes to do good. So sometimes he goes to church in the Spirit; it is Christ who is doing it through him. Other times he goes to church in the flesh. At that point he is doing good and living by a law that is other than the law of Christ and he is being legalistic.

2. Everybody is a legalist outside of grace.

We all live by rules. We either live by the rule of grace and walk in the Spirit or we live by our own rules. We make up laws all the time. The rules may be an attempt to please God or another god, but it is still rule-making. “Every man does that which is right in his own eyes.” The key is “that which is right.” Even the atheist does “that which is right” (righteousness), but it is a rightness that conforms to the laws of his own making. In this sense, everybody is a legalist in that it is our nature to “do that which is right,” but we do it according to our own way. Only grace rescues a person from that which is right in his own eyes.

3. Thus, there is a false dichotomy between the “legalism” and “licentiousness.”

It is common, particularly in Fundamentalist circles, to defend themselves against the charge of legalism by using a two-pronged defense that eviscerates the Gospel in the process.

The Two-pronged Defense Against the Charge of Legalism

A. “We are not legalists because we believe that man is saved by grace alone.”

This answer is obviously a simplistic reduction of the problem of legalism and essentially creates a straw man that is easily rebuffed. The fact of the matter is that few people are charging them with the heresy that they have to work for their salvation. Ironically, they are often charged with easy-believism. However, the simplistic reduction of the term legalism to mean only works-based salvation may score points in the immediate with unthinking congregants, but in the long run it fails to understand what the Gospel is. The Gospel is not only about saving people from hell, but saving them from their sins. It is not only that grace provides a way to heaven, but that grace is the way. The Good News is not merely that God has given us a ticket to the Pearly Gates through the work of Jesus Christ, but that the life of Jesus Christ in us is the only acceptable life we can offer to God even after our conversion.

B. “The opposite of legalism is licentiousness and we must live in the balance of liberty.”

My Christian college tried to explain legalism as polar opposite from licentiousness and that Christians were to exercise their liberty with great care as  if the ditch on either side was something to be avoided. It was understood, however, that legalism was the lesser of the two evils. But this is a false dichotomy.

The opposite of legalism is liberty. Period.

Some legalists are culturally restrictive. Other legalists are licentious and unrestrained. They both flesh out their own righteousness. Thus, this second argument misses out on the main point of the Gospel. Legalism is just as anti-Christ as licentiousness. Legalism and moralism are more dangerous in that they are so deceptive. As one old-fashioned preacher opined during the Prohibition Era, “If the Devil gets a hold of this city he’ll see to it that every bar is closed and all crime has ceased.” The wicked enemy is all about passing himself off as an “angel of light.” If the Devil had his way everybody would be going to church insofar as they did not come to Christ. Because churchgoers are far less inclined to see a need for another righteousness than the hooker in the gutter. Both the churchgoer and the hooker have lived life by “what is right,” but both of them need to be freed from their legalism and learn to walk in the liberty of Christ’s righteousness.

Now back to my points on legalism:

4. Legalism is operating by a different set of rules, a different law.

I’ll argue this more thoroughly, Lord willing, in another post on judgementalism, but suffice it to say right now that this is the point that James 4:11 teaches. If we presume to be able to speak evil about a brother outside of the parameters of the Scripture (we must judge at times), then we are making ourselves higher than the law and the Giver of the Law. By speaking evil about a brother, by passing judgment where the Bible is silent, I am speaking evil of God and His Law and thereby saying it is insufficient. I’m operating by a set of different rules. I’m making up new laws. I’m a legalist.

It should be evident by now that fundamentalists do not have a monopoly on legalism. Some of the most legalistic people that I confront, hyper-judgmental individuals, are often people from evangelicalism. Fundamentalists merely have a monopoly (we must admit) on a host of often-silly cultural taboos which is only one of many forms of legalism.

Therefore, it is completely legalistic of Fundamentalists to be worked up about T4G and the Gospel Coalition and literally scare their people from joining places where “pseudo-Fundamentalists” are enjoying the fellowship of these conservative evangelicals. These “bad boy mavericks” like myself are unabashedly enjoying fellowship around — gasp! — the fundamentals. And you people that are in the FBF type churches need to understand that we actually have more in common with historic fundamentalists than your churches; doctrinally, ethically, and socially. The Gospel and the practical outworking of the Gospel in the local church is the focus of a real fundamentalist church and therefore I would say that the tragedy of the times is that the name “Fundamentalists” has been hijacked by a movement represented by the likes of Jack Schaap and the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship.

The reality is that I am the fundamentalist and a growing group of churches and pastors who have begun to understand soteriology and ecclesiology and the importance of Christian discipleship and are no longer bullied by the intimidation of the mother-ships. I relinquish the title to Jack Schaap and Brad Smith. They may have it. They share the common fallacy of adding to the fundamentals so many things that their own followers cannot discern up from down. Soon they begin to think that the real fundamental, the one that really matters, is loyalty. Loyalty to the pastor’s description of the movement. Loyalty to “the man of God.” Loyalty to the one or two favored institutions. Loyalty to a mishmash of incoherent and contradictory teaching and practice that make no logical and biblical sense once a person begins the process of thinking. The title of fundamentalism is theirs.

I will not, however, relinquish the claim that it is I, not these other men, who is the real fundamentalist. And I will argue that it is a matter of faith and doctrine that their legalism and unscriptural practices must be denounced. Go to an FBF meeting and look at their leaders beginning with the president and do a study of their adult children. (The last one I attended in 2009 it was obvious that most of the attendees were old enough to have adult children.) You will find that the second-generation of Fundamentalism results very frequently, if they are graced by God, in abandonment of their fathers’ ideology while retaining true fundamentals (thankfully) or, sadly, a whole-hearted plunge into antinomianism. Do a survey of all the graduates of any Christian school in Fundamentalism and discover what many of us know and others refuse to acknowledge. You can tell a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of legalistic fundamentalism and its unbiblical application of separation from the world and the Body of Christ is rotten.

My brother pastors in fundamentalism: if you think that your disgruntled are going to come to our churches, you’re mistaken. Most of your disgruntled will find that we take the Gospel and the Church too seriously. So, for the sake of the Gospel and the health of your churches, I plead with you to stop embarrassing yourselves by making us the enemy. Our enemy is lurking in our hearts. It’s our anti-gospel flesh.

That is what I’m fighting. That is what I wish you’d fight.

John Murray was right:

Many … Christians today seek to impose standards of conduct and criteria of holiness that have no warrant from Scripture and that even in some cases cut athwart Scripture principles, precepts and example.  The adoption of extra-scriptural rules and regulations have sometimes been made to appear very necessary and even commendable.  But we must not judge according to the appearance but judge righteous judgement.  Such impositions are an attack upon the sufficiency of Scripture and the holiness of God, for they subtly imply that the standard of holiness God had given us in His Word is not adequate and needs to be supplemented by our additions and importations.  When properly analyzed this attitude of mind is gravely wicked.  It is an invasion upon our God-given liberty just because it is an invasion upon the sufficiency of the law of God, the perfect law of liberty. It is therefore, appearances to the contrary, a thoroughly antinomian frame of mind. It evinces a lamentable lack of jealousy for the perfection of Scripture and invariably, if not corrected and renounced, lead to an ethical looseness in the matter of express divine commands. In the words of Professor R. B. Kuiper, “The man who today forbids what God allows, tomorrow will allow what God forbids.”

Legalism is the slippery slope. And some fundamentalists are finally beginning to get off the slope and find a firm footing in the grace of God and true biblical discipleship.